Reviews

Star Wars: Squadrons Review – Excellent In VR

The Star Wars license is not what it once was thanks to the new, divisive trilogy and the inconsistency of EA’s games. But Star Wars still has the power to tap into our collective nostalgia, and we’ve all just been waiting for EA to get their act together and start using the Star Wars license properly. Star Wars: Fallen Order was a pretty good step forward, and Star Wars: Battlefront 2 has grown into something far stronger than it began life as. But now Motive Studios and EA have come out with Star Wars: Squadrons, a space combat game where you pilot X-wings and TIE fighters and live out all those childhood fantasies. Or at least, the childhood fantasies second to having an actual working lightsaber.

Probably the best thing to know going into Star Wars Squadrons is that you should temper your expectations. There’s been a lot of negative Steam reviews that seem to be because people were expecting something else, something more like the old Tie Fighter games, or wanted a bigger game with future support. Instead, Star Wars: Squadrons is more of an arcade title than a simulator priced at just £35, and according to the developers, there are no plans for adding any DLC. What we’ve got is all we’re getting. In an age of live-service, microtransactions and DLC it’s kind of refreshing for a company like EA to put out a game and be done with it. Hell, Star Wars: Squadrons has singleplayer and multiplayer without a microtransaction in site – if it wasn’t for the massive logo when it starts, I would never have guessed it’s published by EA. It’s like anti-EA.

Available On: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Motive Studios
Publisher: EA

The singleplayer campaign runs around 8-10 hours and has you bouncing back and forth between the noble Republic and the dastardly space Nazis, also known as the Empire. Things kick off in dramatic fashion as an Empire pilot by the name of Lindon Javes abandons his squad and sides with the Rebels. Things skip forward five years, setting the game just after the end of the original trilogy. The Emperor is dead, but the Empire forces still linger and are still a danger to the galaxy as they plot nefarious space stuff. You’ll be playing as two nameless pilots, one on each side of the fight, as they fly through a series of missions.

The plot is painted in broad strokes with basic characters and a bunch of tropes we’ve already seen. Hell, an Empire soldier turning traitor has popped up in both Star Wars: Battlefront 2 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as loads of other Star Wars media., It’s well-trodden ground, and Star Wars: Squadrons does absolutely nothing new or interesting with it. Having Lindon on one side and his former squadmate, now a commander, Terisa Kerrill on the other does at least ground the story on a more personal level.

I did at least enjoy a couple of the squadmates you fly with. On the Empire side, Shen is a pilot who has been shot down multiple times over his long career and is basically held together by cybernetics. He never removes his helmet now, so there’s a fun element of mystery and badassery to this dude. Over in the Republic’s hangar, Frisk is an intriguing rogue who ended up joining the Republic after a death mark was placed on him. He likes to gamble and has a light-hearted edge that contrasts the rest of the game nicely.

What I’m saying is that the story is mildly entertaining, but as soon as the credits roll you’ll probably have forgotten all the story beats and have zero attachment to the characters. It’s a shame more couldn’t have been done to add to the Star Wars canon, but at least they managed to resist having Darth Vader make an appearance. I don’t think I could have. Kudos to you, devs.

Despite focusing on arcade thrills, Star Wars: Squadrons takes place purely from a first-person viewpoint. You’re always packed into the cockpit as you weave through asteroids or chase down a starfighter. Perhaps for some people, this strict first-person camera will be a major turn-off, but for me, it’s a good choice. It’s immersive, and if you want you can switch off all the gamey HUD elements and just use the fully working instruments in the ship’s cockpit to fly with.

The actual ships feel great to fly. I’d say the sense of speed is a little lacking at times, but executing tight turns, rolls and blasting through narrow gaps all bring a smile to my face. Another thing that makes me smile is pulling the trigger and hearing the iconic sounds of the laser. But you also have two auxiliary pieces of gear to play around with, ranging from self-repair kits to proton torpedoes capable of dishing out big damage. The campaign sticks you into the cockpit of all four ship types and gives you some room to try out a bunch of different stuff, and I was impressed by the differences between them all. Flying a Y-wing feels a lot different from the speedy but vulnerable A-wings or the reliable X-wings.

There’s a bit of depth added to the dogfighting via being able to direct your ship’s power to weapons, shields (only for the Republic) or engines. If you’re up on your Star Wars knowledge you might recognize these mechanics from older games like X-Wing. By default on a controller, you tap left, right or up to divert power to the system you want, thereby giving you access to more speed and a boost, or amping up your weapons, or just letting you take extra punishment. If you want some more refined control, you can swap to the advanced mode which lets you choose exactly how much power to shift from one system to the other rather than just pushing everything into one.

Meanwhile, if you’re flying a Republic ship you can choose to focus your shields more toward the front or the rear. Obviously, this is dead handy if you’re flying directly toward an enemy capital ship or something, or if somebody gets on your tail. If you’re flying Empire, things are a bit different since they don’t get shields. Instead, you can choose to funnel even more power into engines or weapons.

Smart, quick management of these systems isn’t something the campaign really forces you to focus on, unless you’re playing on the hardest difficulty. That’s a shame, because not only do they bring some welcome depth to the combat, but they’re also vital in multiplayer. Learning to quickly switch between systems to get the best out of your ship can provide a huge edge over other pilots.

To be clear, though, this isn’t a full-blown simulator like some of the old Star Wars titles were. Star Wars: Squadrons is a much easier game to play, emphasising arcadey thrills over trying to replicate exactly what flying a Tie or X-wing would be like in real life.

Unfortunately, even this simpler game feels a bit crowded on a controller. I can’t play flying games on a keyboard and mouse, so most of my time playing Squadrons was using either a controller or a joystick. On the pad, there’s quite a bit going on. Throttle and roll are mapped to the left stick, and pitch and yaw on the other. Meanwhile, adjusting systems is down on the d-pad, so to divert power you have to momentarily abandon throttle control. That’s a problem because in a fight you’re almost always adjusting your throttle. In fact, the mid-point on the throttle is where you get the most manoeuvrability out of the ship, a tricky position to find on a controller without glancing down at your ship’s displays. The game gives you a little vibration (kinky) through the controller and an audio cue, but it never feels completely natural to bring the throttle down or up to the mid-point.

The campaign serves as a good training ground for heading into the multiplayer where real people can duke it out to prove whose the best pilot. Based on my ability to find every chunk of debris and fly straight into, it isn’t me. The basic mode is a straight 5v5 dogfight, or in other words, Team Deathmatch in Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace. The first team to 30-kills wins. Simple as that.

It’s more likely you’ll spend time in Fleet Battles, which still only has a disappointingly small 5v5 players, but introduces A.I. controlled squads of TIES and X-Wings, as well as hulking capital ships. The goal here is to destroy the other team’s capital ship, but to do that you first need to push through the smaller defensive vessels. Each match kicks off with a straight dog-fight as players meet in the middle and seek to gain the upper hand. Every kill reduces the enemy morale bar, which in turn pushes the battle line back. If it’s pushed back far enough the enemy team has to start defending their two frontline ships. If both ships are destroyed, the capital ship can be assaulted. These floating beasts have various sub-systems that can be disabled like shields and targetting arrays.

Fleet Battles are a lot of fun due to their see-sawing nature. Sure, it’s a shame that only ten players are involved in the action, but that also means your personal performance has a serious impact on pushing the line forward or holding off the enemy ships. When you get a kill or destroy one of the various ships that can appear mid-battle, you know you’ve made a palpable difference. Of course, that also means there’s a lot of pressure to perform well, which is why Fleet Battles are ranked only.

If there’s one thing I don’t like about Fleet Battles, it’s that in space there’s no obvious battle line. Crossing into enemy territory means getting hammered by the capital ships, but it’s so easy to accidentally wander across the line. And if the line shifts while you’re in the fight, there’s not an obvious enough warning to get the hell out of dodge. That can lead to some unfortunate and annoying defeats.

But I do appreciate the kill-cam, because when you die you get to see how awesome of a pilot you were anyway. Unless you were flying in a straight line, in which case you deserved death, noob.

If the idea of ranked fleet battles is a bit daunting, you can also play against the A.I. This mode lets you and four others go up against the reasonably challenging A.I. pilots, and still get XP and stuff for the effort. It’s a nice inclusion, letting you relax a little more while still enjoying Fleet Battles.

Throughout the whole thing, you’ll be hoovering up XP, increasing your total level and earning two types of resource that can be spent on outfitting your ships and tricking out your space jockey. Each of the four ship types (fighter, interceptor, bomber & support) already feel distinctive to fly, but you can tweak them further by altering the way their weapons perform, the engine type and so on. Plus you can swap out your two auxiliary weapons, perhaps going for something like Proton Bombs for dealing with capital ships or lock-on missiles. Customization isn’t insane, but it’s well thought out with each new part providing benefits and weaknesses to consider, which I love. It’s not just a case of buying the new thing and putting it on to make the ship better.

There’s a bit of visual customization, too. Things like ship paint jobs and little bobbles for the interior, plus different gear for your pilot.

Overall, the multiplayer is insanely good fun, especially with friends or when you get matched up with good players. Weaving through debris to lose an attacker or going in for a bombing run on a Star Destroy are proper heart-pumping moments. There’s no denying its a bit light on content, though – two modes and a few maps isn’t a lot. And it has been re-confirmed that no future content is coming. Part of me admires this old-school attitude: here’s the game. That’s it. It’s a complete product. But the other part of me that’s geeking out about assaulting a Star Destroyer can’t help but want more. More modes, more maps, more ships, more stuff. Just more.

Part of me thinks that Star Wars: Squadrons was developed as a VR title from the start, and converted into a regular game later in order to generate more sales. There’s a couple of hints to this, but I think the big one is how you navigate hanger and briefing areas between story missions. There are only four locations that you visit when you aren’t flying: the Empire and Republic hangers and briefing rooms. These are small areas, and yet you don’t get to walk around them. Instead, you’re rooted to the spot, only able to rotate around. And to interact with squad members or go to the next room, you look and tap a button. It’s a design that seems intended for use with a headset.

Pushing that aside, strapping on a VR headset takes Star Wars: Squadrons from being a solid, fun game to the next level. Opening your eyes to find yourself in the cockpit of a X-wing was a moment of child-like glee for me. Likewise the first time I got into a fight and actually whipped my head around the follow an enemy Tie was a glorious moment. It felt right. It felt natural. And I have to tell you that cruising above a Star Destroyer while lasers whip past you in VR is…it’s the kind of thing that could make me squeal like my little nephew when he finds a slug. Then I got into a Tie fighter and immediately realised that whoever designed them is an idiot – you can’t see out the bloody things. It’s like flying around in a blacked-out fishbowl. No wonder Empire pilots are moody bastards.

The point is, Star Wars: Squadrons is an exceptional game in VR. It’s the kind of thing that makes you remember why you bought a headset, and the kind of thing that might persuade your friends to get into VR after you get them around, hand them a controller and stick the headset on their skull.

For the ultimate Star Wars experience, combine VR with a joystick and throttle control. I wanted to pick up a proper HOTAS system myself to try out, but between Covid, Microsoft Flight Simulator and Squadrons, literally all the HOTAS systems are sold out. So I busted out an ancient joystick and plugged it in. To my delight, it worked very well. The busy control scheme feels much better with a joystick where you don’t have to relinquish control of throttle or manoeuvrability in order to shift power around. And with VR, having a joystick makes the whole thing incredibly immersive.

But there are some potential issues. Squadrons boasts crossplay, so PC, Xbox and Playstation folk can all player together, which is great for matchmaking. But it also means you have a diverse range of control systems that could lead to an uneven playing field. IN my eyes, HOTAS players definitely have the edge over controllers, although mouse and keyboard users will probably be as accurate. Meanwhile, anyone using VR has a much easier time when it comes to tracking enemy ships, so will that translate to an edge in dogfights?

It’s also worth noting that Star Wars: Squadrons has had some problems with both HOTAS and VR support. A lot of HOTAS players have complained of huge deadzones that make flying difficult, although a new patch has seemingly gone a long way to fixing this. Meanwhile, some VR players are having performance issues or are complaining that the image is fuzzy. Personally, on my Oculus Rift S the game ran great and the graphics looked excellent. There’s a softness to the image, but that’s normal for VR.

For some people Star Wars: Squadrons might not be the game they wanted, especially if they were looking for the spiritual sequel to games like Rogue Squadron, TIE Fighter and X-Wing. But for, Star Wars: Squadrons has been a blast. It looks amazing and feels great to play with a solid campaign and multiplayer I can see myself sticking with for a few months. And if you own a VR headset and have a love for all things Star Wars it’s a no-brainer. Getting to buzz a Star Destroyer in an X-wing and craning your neck to track an enemy TIE fighter as it blasts past is jaw-droppingly immersive.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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